Politics & Policy

Big Labor Is Dropping Big Dollars on Luxury Goods

Ceasars Palace in Las Vegas (Kobby Dagan/Dreamstime)
Designer clothes and handbags, private jets, trips to Disney Worldland and casinos — all funded by union dues

A Pittsburgh union already facing federal scrutiny over its questionable spending dropped nearly $42,000 at the designer retailer Burberry in 2015, according to Department of Labor records.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a probe into Boilermakers Local 154, which in recent years also reported spending $48,000 in member dues on Apple products, $19,000 on fancy luggage, $20,000 on Penguins tickets, and $5,600 on a steak dinner at Morton’s, a local news station reported. The union did not return repeated phone calls from National Review by deadline.

While Boilermakers Local 154 may be especially extravagant, a National Review examination of unions’ annual filings revealed myriad examples of questionable use of member dues, spanning both private- and public-sector unions.

In 2014, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 spent $11,803 at the Coach Store in Philadelphia for “holiday gifts.”

On 2015 filings, six private-sector unions together reported that they had spent nearly $347,000 at Six Flags amusement parks. The expenditures covered member picnics, special events, and union administration, the unions reported.

On its 2015 tax filing alone, the National Education Association Headquarters spent more than $347,000 at Disney’s Buena Vista Palace and the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort for membership recruiting and organizing, member and staff education, and policy development. By publication, NEA had not responded to National Review’s e-mailed inquiry.

At least four other unions also reported Disney expenditures, totaling $236,591, including a national convention, “member-related costs,” and “union administration.”

Right now, members have little recourse to hold union members accountable for wasteful or inappropriate spending, says David Osborne, president of the Fairness Center, a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services to employees fighting union abuse.

“Public-sector and private-sector unions routinely spend money like this on what I would think are ill-advised or lavish retreats, conferences,” Osborne says. “The state of the law is basically that they’re allowed to do that, and if members don’t like it, they actually have to vote the union out.” Such decertification is exceedingly rare, he adds.

Such controversial spending by organized labor is especially frustrating in non-right-to-work states, where paying into the union coffers is a condition of employment.

These single-year figures for Disney expenditures are dwarfed when compared with other data pulled from the Department of Labor website. The statistics, which date back to January 2010, do not eliminate possible duplicates from the infrequent amended reports filed with the federal government. But on the whole, the data reveal several massive, eyebrow-raising expenditures.

For instance, since 2010, reports from dozens of unions show expenditures of more than $45 million spent at casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and elsewhere.

The vendors listed by unions include not only Caesar’s, the MGM Grand, and Wynn but also, oddly enough, the Cosmopolitan, which, between 2010 and December 2015, was embroiled in a major labor dispute after becoming one of the only major properties on the Las Vegas strip without a union contract.

Since 2010, a total of ten unions also together spent more than $942,777 at a company providing private-jet service. 

Union money also went to controversial, politically connected causes.

Since January 2010, a handful of unions reported giving $2.14 million to the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton Foundation. During that same time frame, nearly $1.74 million in union cash went to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, and $495,000 to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Such controversial spending by organized labor is especially frustrating in non-right-to-work states, where paying into the union coffers is a condition of employment.

Union spending is under increased scrutiny this week, as the Supreme Court considers whether to weaken public-sector unions’ ability to coerce these funds from government employees.

Though a union loss in this case wouldn’t affect private-sector workers, it may well embolden them to fight back against lavish, wasteful, or abusive spending from their own labor bosses.

Jillian Kay Melchior — Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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